The increasing need for behavioral health care for children is putting a strain on school social workers
On paper, the role of the social worker in K-12 public schools is simple: to support a caseload of special needs students to thrive in an often challenging academic environment. But ask any social worker employed in a public school these days and they’ll probably tell you a very different story.
For social worker Jara Rijs, who works at Windham Center School, where more than half of her students from preschool through fifth grade are entitled to a subsidized lunch, job responsibilities stretch far beyond the job description, especially since the outbreak of the Pandemic.
With many in her school community dealing with trauma either caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, Rijs considers each of the estimated 250 students at her elementary school to be part of her case count.
In addition to providing clinical support to students with individual educational plans, Rijs may also meet with a student struggling with family loss or divorce on a specific day, contact a local health authority to check availability, a staff discussion teach about self-sufficiency, or even don the school’s “Froggy” mascot costume – a symbol of the school’s “Froggy Four” character development program.
Jokes and games aside, Rijs takes a serious tone when discussing the state of her student’s mental health.
In Connecticut, as elsewhere across the country, the pandemic has exacerbated how thin school social workers are and demand for services is rising. The number of children requiring behavioral therapy in children’s hospitals has skyrocketed, resulting in long waits for inpatient and community-based care.
In January, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called a “national adolescent psychiatric crisis” and acknowledged the toll the pandemic has had on children.
The ratio of social workers to students in Connecticut is 580 students to one social worker; The national professional standard recommends one social worker for every 250 students. The standard was developed before school-age children were isolated for months from regular school life and the widespread negative effects of the pandemic.
Earlier this month, a state task force led by the Department of Health identified 157 schools most in need of medical and mental health care, with Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven topping the list. The task force report is intended to provide lawmakers with data to be used during the 2022 legislative session.
This week, Democratic lawmakers held a press conference highlighting their top priorities for the current legislative session and acknowledging the “mental health impact” of the pandemic. Lawmakers plan to introduce several measures to support children’s mental health, including increasing funding for school social workers.
Stephen A. Wanczyk-Karp, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers in Connecticut, said, “I’ve been in this field since 1977. And I have never seen such a great interest in social work.”
Cannot keep up with demand
Even in counties with seemingly adequate mental health resources, some schools are in crisis mode.
Carrie Rivera, Associate Director of Mental Health at New London Public Schools, describes the district’s efforts to ensure adequate support for students: increasing the number of social workers at the secondary level, adding social-emotional programs to implement a mindfulness program for pre-school K to 8th class and maintaining a relationship with a community mental health agency.
But the needs of the community are significant. According to Rivera, several families have lost family members — many of them parents or guardians — during the pandemic. The number of homeless students has increased. Job losses, food security and financial insecurity are high. As a result, Rivera says, the district has seen a huge rise in depression, anxiety, and related behavioral problems among students.
Windham’s Rijs knows the feeling. In a school year she had never seen such mentally challenged students before, the district finally signed a one-year contract with a second social worker at her school.
“I hope they keep the second social work position. But I’m worried it’s a position that could be eliminated,” said Rijs.
Barriers to hiring more school-based social workers
Amid the tremendous need for school-based social workers, whose many roles include “first responders” to student crises, leaders in the field say the job is often misunderstood. Wanczyk-Karp says they are often viewed as interchangeable with other mental health professionals such as school psychologists, whose primary responsibilities are conducting psychological and academic assessments of students and guiding students toward academic success.
A lack of recognition of the value of social workers to the schools could be the reason for district-wide decisions, such as the Avon School District’s in 2015 to fire its social workers and replace them with additional school psychologists, which drew public outcry from parents and former students. Catherine Lewis, one of Avon’s parents and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, was among those who denounced the district’s decision to fire social workers. “They make a lot of intangibles,” Lewis said. “You know the pulse of the school.”
Some social workers are hoping the silver lining of the pandemic will mean greater recognition of their profession and, with it, additional resources. “Legislation speaks more than ever about the health of students,” said Rijs. “We’re finally in the limelight”
This story was originally published on February 17, 2022 by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.